Representing Beauty

Ruiyan Xu

What are we looking for in the representations of ourselves? Are we looking for an idealistic representations which glosses over our flaws, or are we seeking a truthful reflection of ourselves as we are. The Avatars in Stephenson's Snow Crash, manage to encompass all of the human anxiety over our appearances and our insecurities. It is not only a representation of how we see ourselves, but how we want the world to see us.

In an episode of The Twilight Zone (Eye of the Beholder), a group of surgeons are working on a young woman who is apparently considered extremely unattractive. Finally deciding that they are unable to do anything for her, she is urged to accept her own state of ugliness. When the young woman turns around, it is a shock to realize that she is incredibly beautiful by our conventional standards - and the surgeons who were working on her would be considered horrifyingly ugly in our society. What is considered beautiful, and as a result, desirable, then, is wholly determined by the cultural context.

In a similar way, appearance on The Street disregards conventional standards, and creates a system of appraisal that is distinct and internalized. Aside from the "black and white" public avatars, it is the Brandys and the Clints that the elite of the Street scoff at. These bodies have become clones of an ideal (the VR versions of Barbie and Ken?), but because they are so commodified and so common place, their beauty (of perfection) loses any value that it would have.

Perhaps, then, the definition of beauty in any cultural context, whether it be Stephenson's Street or Sterling's universe, is not indicated by an immovable standard of perfection, but by a standard whose value lies in its difficulty. The appearance of your avatar is up to you and up to the limitations of your equipment. The real hackers, the elite of the street, try to render their avatars with realism in mind instead of perfection. What is beautiful on the street is what is unique and emotional and realistic. It is a perfection in skill instead of a perfection in appearance.

The skill in rendering an effective, beautiful avatar, comes down to its ability to emote the expressions of the human it is representing. As Hiro explains, this is Juanita's contribution to the Street, and this is what makes the Street a success. The faces - a reflection of one's inner reality. So despite the fact that one can replace the physical reality of self with a different avatar on the Street, one can not misrepresent their ideas and opinions any more than they can in reality. It's ironic, perhaps, that in the Street, everything about your appearance can be a lie, but you cannot lie anymore than you can in the real world. We still want, even in a discrete reality such as the Street, truthful representations of ourselves and those around us.

On the street, we have different ideals of beauty, and we are able to present ourselves as how we see ourselves. But oddly enough, how others perceive us is not so different than how they would perceive us in face to face reality. The true beauty of the Street, the true intimacy of it, still lies in its representation of strangely distorted truths.

[To other discussions of Snow Crash by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]